The Guardian’s Paul Brown Replies

On January 8, we published a Rapid Response Media Alert, ‘Climate Catastrophe – the Ultimate Media Betrayal’. This focussed on media coverage of “terrifying” new scientific findings on climate change and impending species loss. To our knowledge, only Paul Brown, environment correspondent of the Guardian, has responded:

“I have frequently been abused for having a one track mind and never doing anything but attacking corporations for their failure to act on climate change, particularly Exxon. Perhaps you should read the paper. Paul Brown” (Email to Media Lens readers, January 8, 2004)

This brusque email fits a standard pattern of reflexive journalistic responses to polite and rational challenges from members of the public. Brown implies that no reasonable reader of the Guardian could possibly agree with the dozens of emailers who questioned the paper’s recent silence on corporate obstructionism on climate change, its hypocritical promotion of fossil fuel interests through advertising, and its failure to expose the significance of that advertising in compromising and controlling the media. All of these points are answered, according to Brown, by the fact that he has been criticised for “never doing anything but attacking corporations for their failure to act on climate change”. Once again we are reminded of this Laurel & Hardy dialogue:

Mrs Hardy: “And how is Mrs Laurel?”
Stanley: “Oh, fine thank you.”
Mrs Hardy: “I’d love to meet her some time.”
Stanley: “Neither do I, too.” (Laurel and Hardy, Chickens Come Home, 1931)

Brown’s “Perhaps you should read the paper” is a familiar journalistic response. Thus Observer editor, Roger Alton:

“What a lot of balls … do you read the paper old friend?” (Forwarded to Media Lens, February 14, 2003)

And Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

“As a matter of interest, do you ever read the guardian?” (Forwarded to Media Lens, October 22, 2002)

To his credit, Brown wrote more thoughtfully to several Media Lens readers the following day:

“Dear [name deleted]: Please accept my apologies. I have had 38 letters so far in the last 48 hours complaining I have failed to attack corporations. I wrote about the subject again in this morning’s paper quoting the chief scientist attacking the Americans. We try to keep looking for fresh angles to keep this in the public eye. Replying to dozens of letters from people I would have hoped were on the same side does not help us do something about the climate. Last time we were snowed under with similar letters my colleague sent the following reply. I hope it helps. Paul Brown” (Forwarded to Media Lens, January 9, 2004)

The “colleague” in question is Guardian environment editor John Vidal who responded to a Media Lens alert nearly 18 months ago (See ‘Liberal Herrings – Part 1’, 6 August, 2002, at www.Media Lens.org). We replied to Vidal with a number of suggestions for issues he might consider covering, but received no further response. That Brown felt “snowed under” by the public response to the Climate Catastrophe alert is testimony to the deep concern shared by Media Lens readers.

On January 11, Paul Brown wrote directly to Media Lens:

“Thanks for you reply. Having been chided for the terse nature of my response by about 30 people I have replied in some detail to about another 10 but generally given up now ( my email is clogged so the chances of doing any work would be nil if I replied to anything or is that the idea, so stop environmental journalists working).But we are basically on the same side. I do not think it generally makes the slightest difference to whether people advertise with us whether we attack them or not and often it has the opposite effect. They advertise more.

“As I think I said before very often people feel powerless to do anything so for a change we suggested things they might do. Generally speaking we have sympathetically reported boycotting Exxon/Esso, Shell and other corporations, attacked 4 by 4s etc than any other group, to the point where our  balance as reporters has been questioned by our own editors not by

“I think George Bush and his supporters are the most dangerous and nasty people on the planet. I can think of a place in Cuba where they should be placed for the next 20 years ago, but if I am to be effective as a journalist I have to protect myself to sticking to basic journalistic rules about balance. Would you prefer that we got fired and replaced by someone less inclined to attack big business. I do not object to engaging in debate, but this is Sunday, and I cannot work all the time. Paul Brown”

We have responded today to Brown as follows:

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email of January 11. We value your openness and commitment in responding to our alert as well as to many emails from our readers.

As we noted in our Climate Catastrophe Alert on January 8, the Guardian has consistently misrepresented business obstructionism on climate change as involving only a few fundamentalist fossil fuel companies, notably Exxon/Esso. The truth is that business opposition is widespread throughout virtually +all+ sectors of industry and commerce (the insurance sector, arguably, being an obvious exception). This is something you explained in your own book, Global Warming:

“Despite the fact that few have heard of the pressure groups created by the oil and coal interests to fight their corner there can be no doubt that they represent the most powerful industries in the world: coal, oil, and automobiles. In this case they also have the message politicians most want to hear – do nothing at all; continue with business as usual; any action to combat climate change will damage established interests, and millions of workers. To back up their campaigns they have unlimited resources which they have used to good effect since before Rio [Earth Summit], realising what a threat the Climate Change Convention was to their interests. Fearful that politicians might take decisions which will damage their profits by cutting consumption of fossil fuels they have been paying teams of lobbyists to work on their behalf.

“At every meeting anywhere in the world where climate change is to be discussed the oil industry is there… Their brief is simply to slow down the business of doing something about climate change as much as possible.” (Paul Brown, Global Warming – Can Civilisation Survive?, Blandford, 1996, p.176)

These points sit uncomfortably with your mention of how you have been accused of “never doing anything but attacking corporations for their failure to act on climate change” in the Guardian. As you yourself have recognised, the real issue is not corporate inaction at all – it is fierce corporate +ACTION+ to oppose measures to tackle climate change. We are simply asking why, with the world vital facing catastrophe, the Guardian made no reference to these crucial issues in its recent reports and leaders on impending climate catastrophe. After all, if it had been predicted that international terrorism would lead to the mass extinction of 1 million species by 2050, we feel sure the Guardian would have devoted any amount of column inches to identifying and exposing the killers responsible.

You write:

“I have to protect myself to sticking to basic journalistic rules about balance. Would you prefer that we got fired and replaced by someone less inclined to attack big business.”

It is remarkable that by refraining from systematically examining one of the most important issues of our time – the perhaps terminal consequences of corporate domination – you imply that you believe you are “sticking to basic journalistic rules about balance”. This mirrors US media critic Edward Herman’s warning that journalistic notions of ‘balance’ and ‘professionalism’ actually mask a deep-seated compromise with authority. (See: ‘The Myth of the Liberal Media’, Edward Herman, Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1999)

Why would the Guardian be likely to fire you for criticising big business too much rather than too little? And why would it be likely to replace you with someone less, rather than more, critical of business? Your comments suggest that you know only too well that you are pushing at the limits of a corporate media system, that you know your efforts are not welcomed but tolerated, at best. And yet we are speaking of “the country’s leading liberal newspaper”.

We applaud your willingness to push the limits in this way, we know you are in a difficult situation. But our point is that these limits +do+ exist and their existence is a serious problem for all of us and should be openly discussed. This problem, indeed, blows open the whole idea that the ‘liberal’ press is free, fair and independent. The fact is that the Guardian is a major commercial enterprise deeply dependent on other businesses and entrenched in the corporate system. There are very real limits to what it is willing to say about the system of which it is a part.

Naturally, then, we have never seen an article discussing the bottom-line and other corporate pressures to which you, John Vidal and all other journalists are subjected in the media – nothing about how you have to “protect [your]self”. We know that it is simply understood that some issues – particularly issues that expose the fundamental pro-business bias of the corporate media – are not fit subjects for discussion. Above all, as with every other corporation, journalists are not to criticise the product in front of customers – even though the ‘product’ is supposed to be the unvarnished truth!

Does it not concern you that you cannot tread on powerful toes without the risk of being fired? Do you and your colleagues not feel compelled to blow the whistle on all of this – to go public on the pressures that compromise honest, full and accurate reporting in your own newspaper?

Finally, you argue, “I do not think it generally makes the slightest difference to whether people advertise with us whether we attack them or not…”

This is not a credible view. As you know, broadsheets are dependent on advertising revenue for around 75% of their income. Unsurprisingly, then, negative criticism of their major advertisers is all but unknown in these ‘serious’ newspapers. Obviously, such criticism would risk damaging the success of the advert, alienating the advertiser, and so losing advertising revenue to competitors. If you subjected the Guardian’s major fossil fuel advertisers to the kind of criticism they deserve, the Guardian would cease to exist as a commercial entity.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting reported that in a 2000 poll of 287 US reporters, editors and news executives, about one-third of respondents said that news that would “hurt the financial interests” of the media organisation or an advertiser went unreported. Forty-one percent said they themselves had avoided stories, or softened their tone, to benefit their media company’s interests. When a 2000 Time magazine series on environmental campaigners, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, failed to mention anti-car campaigners, Time’s international editor admitted that mentioning them would be inappropriate because, after all, “we don’t run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes”. (www.fair.org, ‘Fear & Favor 2000 – How Power Shapes The News’, http://www.fair.org/ff2000.html)

As you pointed out, the Guardian was “snowed under” with complaints from readers criticising the Guardian’s hypocrisy in carrying full page adverts for American Airlines “2 for 1 flights” a day after describing the “terrifying” prospects for climate catastrophe. Not one of these appeared on the Guardian’s letters page. We wrote to the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Ian Mayes, on January 12 to ask why. So far we have received no response.

Your colleague, environment editor John Vidal, made a telling observation about media limits in a review of George Monbiot’s book ‘Captive State’, published in 2000. Vidal wrote that “the intellectual and political establishment – and I include the mainstream media of which I am part” are loath to tackle “the politicians, the local authorities, the corporations, and the many individuals and institutions” whom Monbiot names and shames in his book. (Vidal, The Ecologist, December 2000/January 2001)

Isn’t it outrageous that journalists never investigate and report on +why+ the media, including the Guardian, is loath to tackle such power? The idea that it is normal and reasonable for the media never to engage in serious self-examination and self-criticism is one of the great Flat Earth ideas of our time.

Why, for example, have the Guardian’s environment pages been steadily downgraded and marginalised from their prominent position in the mid-1980s? This during a period when environmental crises have worsened dramatically and environmentalists have been largely vindicated. Is it true, as we have been told, that the Guardian’s Science section was prioritised because it was seen as a means of attracting corporate careers advertising? Finally, has the Guardian newspaper itself ever been subject to an environmental audit? If so, when, and with what results?

The world has never needed a genuinely free press more than it needs one now – the future habitability of the planet may depend upon it. For structural reasons – bottom line pressures, dependence on advertisers, vulnerability to corporate flak machines, reliance on government news sources, etc – the Guardian does not and cannot report freely. However, even marginal improvements in reporting more fully and honestly can have major, beneficial impacts.

Best wishes

David Cromwell and David Edwards
The Editors, Media Lens


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Paul Brown at the Guardian. It is best to write in your own words. You could, for example, ask him to reveal the lobbying activities of corporations and investors opposing action on climate change. Ask him to expose the climate-wrecking activities of major advertisers in the Guardian.

Email: [email protected]

Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

Email: [email protected]

And, very importantly, the Letters Page and the readers’ editor of the Guardian:

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]

Write to Steve Connor at the Independent (see our alert ‘Climate Catastrophe – the Ultimate Media Betrayal’ on 8 January, 2004):

Email: [email protected]

Write to Independent editor, Simon Kelner:

Email: [email protected]

And the Letters Page:

Email: [email protected]